Thursday, January 07, 2010

Michener: Caravans (The end of the world as we know it)

BHISHMA'S RECLUSIVE ACQUAINTANCE up in Oregon recently recommended to me James Michener’s novel Caravans, published in 1962 but set in the Afghanistan of the years immediately following World War II.

I read it in the days following New Year’s Eve, when another old friend announced his view — I’d heard it before — that the world as we know it was about to end, if not in our lifetimes, then in those of our children. “Our” children, I type: but this old friend has no children, and it was at first to that that I attributed his pessimism.

Soon, though, another idea occurred to me: “the world as we know it” has ended many times, and will end many times again. It’s always doing that, ending, then evolving into the world as another society knows it, only to end again. The world as the Roman Republic knew it ended, and the world as the Roman Empire. The world as Chief Joseph knew it. The world as two protagonists of this book, Nazrullah and Zulffiqar know it: Nazrullah, a civil engineer who believes in a future Westernized Afghanistan, enlightened and developed and comfortable; Zulffiqar, a nomadic chieftain who knows such an Afghanistan will be attempted, will destroy his way life, and must be prepared for.

I was impressed with another of Michener’s books, Iberia, and am equally so with this. Michener seems at ease alternating between fiction and philosophy, between active participation and objective contemplation. I suspect his books are very different to varied readers. I find reassurance, in the face of my friend’s pessimism, in the constancy Michener finds in human behavior, always alternating between instinct and education, reality and idealism, love (and jealousy) and reason, things as they always are and as they always, we are apparently doomed to feel (though differently, according to the values in fashion at the moment), should be.

Caravans makes me wish I were fifty (and the world eighty) years younger and a good horseman. It made me think, too, of my mother, who in her young and middle years wondered about Tashkent and Samarkand, and in her later years managed to visit them, which I shall almost surely not. And it makes me worry that perhaps my next read will be Frederick Prokosch's The Asiatics or Seven Who Fled — though either would be a real self-indulgence, for I read them over twenty years ago, and there are unread books to visit…

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...


It's not clear whether you did read Prokosch's two novels, or have yet to.

I had a brief flirtation with Prokosch when I bought, on a whim, nearly all his books one day that were languishing along the top shelf near the ceiling at Shakespeare Books. Prokosch was an odd bird, a true eccentric, and the subject of some minor literary scandal.

Michener became the king of the blockbusters in the 1960's and after. I gave a copy of Caravans to my Stepfather for, I think, his 62nd birthday, but I don't think he even read it all the way through. As a fan of hard-boiled fiction, Michener's judicious, well-documented prose wouldn't have appealed to him.

Michener actually began as an academic, and was a thoroughgoing researcher who for each project amassed a shoe box of note cards recording his vast reading. He had an enormous appetite for learning about things. At the end of his life, as I recall, he grew weary of being "kept alive" and had the plugs and wires pulled, allowing him to die. Michener deserved all the honors and praise he received, though his work was never formally challenging, and like Paul Theroux, he seemed irrepressibly optimistic about his ability to understand anything, and explain it to anybody. And boundless curiosity.

Curiosity and perspicacity: absolutely essential attributes for being truly alive.

How odd to think that I'm the age my Stepfather was when I gave him this book. He seemed ancient to me, whereas I still feel only about 47. Am I going too fast, or too slow?